It's a long story

Emberlight - Chapter 38

By Gryphonboy | The Firewall Saga | 31 Oct 2021


It's a Long Story 

"Loss is nothing else but change, and change is Nature's delight." 

- Marcus Aurelius 

It's a Long Story

"You don't have to hold on so tightly!" Antigua shouted back at Sweden as she brushed away the embers that were settling onto her visor. 

Sweden was hunched down behind her in Argentum's saddle and was clinging on to her as though his life depended on it. 

"How does he go so fast?" he asked breathlessly. 

Sweden had ridden the fastest horses in his father's Riddermark and none of them came close to the pace that Argentum was setting. The ground sped below them in a rusty blur and he found he was buffeted about by the wind if he didn't stay hunched down behind Antigua. 

"Don't trouble yourself about it, Sweden. It's a long story and now is not the time to go into it" 

Sweden's eyes narrowed at her dismissive response. He was getting more than a little annoyed at the treatment this strange woman was inflicting upon him and he felt a powerful urge to reassert his masculinity. He did not really understand why she seemed so willing to trust him, but then he remembered the crushing feeling of the monstrous metal steed's hoof as it bore down on his chest, squeezing the air from his lungs. The experience would have been unpleasant enough without the added pain coming from his fractured rib. He resolved to bide his time, there would be a reckoning. He would personally teach this woman the meaning of obedience and supplication. After all, she seemed so eager to expose herself to it, charging headlong into a world she knew nothing of.  

Back in the dome, Antigua had squatted beside him as Argentum pinned him to the ground. She tapped him on the forehead with an impatient finger. 

"Listen carefully," she had said, "for I will only say this once." 

"If I come to any harm, by your hand or through your instruction to another, then my equine companion will put his hoof through your chest and you will breathe no more. Do you understand me?" 

Sweden had nodded furiously, gasping for air. 

To his surprise, she then instructed him to take her to his people. He had absolutely no problem with agreeing to that. In any case, he was in no position to argue, what with the full weight of Argentum's towering mass concentrated on his chest. 

Yes, he had thought, I will take you to my father, and at the first opportunity begin your subjugation.  

He would bring her to his father and then when they were away from the demon horse, they would unleash punishment on her, the likes of which no whore had ever experienced. He would have her begging and screaming for mercy. He hunched down further in the saddle, festering in his thoughts. 

Antigua was aware of the malicious intent percolating away behind her. The situation had been a little hairy back in the dome and she was still kicking herself for being so trusting and for losing control.  

What had she been thinking, taking off her power armor and turning her back on him like that? 

Thankfully it had played out in her favor and she would not make the same mistake again. Now that she was safely ensconced in her armor there was literally nothing that Sweden could do to threaten her.  

The visor gave her full-spectrum visibility of his bio-metrics. The enviro suit he was wearing provided a broad swathe of data points that she could tap into and analyze from her HUD. Blood pressure, body temperature, heart rate, electrocardiogram, and even high-resolution electroencephalography.  

She could practically read his mind.  

Every time she asserted herself against him there was a sharp spike in his vitals, indicating a strong, negative emotional response. He was clearly not used to being spoken to or treated this way. Misogyny was an alien concept to her so the possibility that her sex was the driving force behind his reaction simply did not occur to her. 

Argentum sped south across the sun-bleached steppe, each massive stride taking them further from the searing heat of The Firewall. They covered the distance from the dome to the point where she had first found Sweden's brother in less than four hours. 

No more than two days had passed since she had rescued the twins from the jaws of the hearthland scavengers and yet the scene had changed completely. Very little remained of the carnage, save the odd assortment of bones and strips of rawhide scattered here and there. A couple of aged vultures squabbled over a bone and a few weasel-like animals were still poking around but the space was otherwise unoccupied. 

Antigua reigned Argentum in and turned in the saddle to face Sweden. 

"Where to now?" she asked. 

Sweden looked around, he recognized the spot. He took his bearings by keeping his back to the glow of the Firewall and pointed slightly west of due south. He could see the hill he had left his father and the other rangers on in the distance and knew that this was the way to go. Antigua drove her heels into Argentum's flank and the horse leaped forward, galloping at full pace in the direction indicated.  

They had not traveled more than a couple of hundred yards when Antigua pulled sharply on the reigns, bringing them to an abrupt halt. She had noticed some unusual tracks leading away from the area. 

"You and your brother weren't the only ones interested in this spot," she said. 

"My brother!"  

Sweden had forgotten about him. 

"You promised you would take me to him," he said petulantly. 

"Yes, I suppose I did," Antigua replied, "but then, I remembered that I don't give a fuck what you want. I have a job to do and you are going to help me do it." 

Sweden could scarcely believe what he was hearing. 

"What are you talking about?" he shouted. 

He had been convinced that his brother had met an untimely demise in the bowels of some ravenous scavenger. Everything that had happened since the old steward had sent him out with the search party had served to distract him from the loss his body was trying to communicate to him. A piece of his soul that had always been with him since the day he was born was missing. Not being able to sense his brother's presence was tearing him apart. 

Antigua sensed the emotional anguish in his voice but was really surprised by the readings she was getting from his suit EEG sensor. There was a repeating pattern of Short bursts of electrical energy that did not fit with any brain model she was familiar with. 

"O.K. look, to be honest, I'm not sure about his status." she replied, "I did what I could to stabilize him and sent him through the Gateway. The medical facility on the other side has him. As far as I know, he should be alive. Assuming he survived the crossing." 

Sweden remained silent. 

"Trust me on this, the ride back across the firewall is something you really do not want to experience unless you absolutely have to. There is still a high probability of system failure during the crossing. When our engineers have upgraded the systems on this side and can expand the Gateway's frequency range, then, I promise I will take you to see your brother." 

"For now, if you ever want to see your brother again, your only option is to help me." 

Sweden was clearly not happy with the arrangement, but he stayed quiet. 

"Look, there's a set of tracks leading towards the hill you are taking us to." 

Sweden's ranger training kicked back in and he finally started taking a more focused look at their surroundings. She was right, there was a clear set of horse tracks leading away from them and heading straight for the hill that his father had made camp on. The imprint from the horseshoe had the unmistakable circular design unique to Poan blacksmiths.  

"They belong to one of my father's scouts," he said, scanning around to see if he could find any others. "Probably part of the search party looking for my brother." 

"Fair enough," Antigua replied, "let's see if we can catch up with them." 

She spurred Argentum on guiding him onto the path laid before them by the horse tracks.  

"Hey Argee, you didn't happen to see any reports come in from the other riders while I was... incapacitated?" 

Argentum snorted in response. She took it as a 'no'.  

"Who are you talking to?" Sweden demanded.  

"How long am I going to have to carry this malignant simian on my back?" Argentum demanded.  

"I sense nothing but ill will in his demeanor. He is an uncivilized animal and will attempt to hurt you as soon as the opportunity presents itself." 

"I know Argee," Antigua soothed. "Why don't you introduce yourself to our new companion. I have a feeling we're going to be spending some time together and I want everyone on speaking terms." 

Argentum snorted his disapproval, but relented and opened a commlink to Sweden's visor. 

"Mistress Antigua seems to think that I should let you know who I am. Well, I'm me and you're you. How do you do?" 

Argentum had cheekily upped the gain on the transmission. That, coupled with the booming baritone of his voice, gave Sweden a fright. He clutched his head in surprise and twisted around in the saddle to try and identify where the voice was coming from.  

"Who said that?" he shouted as he started to slide out of the saddle. He was quick-witted enough to wrap his arms around Antigua's waist before he fell off.  

Antigua grinned. 

"Sweden, say hello to Argentum, my trusty steed," she said by way of introduction. 

"Of course," Sweden said, rolling his eyes in exasperation, "you have a talking horse." 

Antigua was about to reply when a warning notification blipped on her HUD. The hill they were approaching was teeming with life forms. She pulled back on Argentum's reins bringing him to halt. 

"There appears to be a welcoming committee for us on top of that hill," she said to Sweden. 

"Really?" Sweden replied, craning forward and squinting at the still distant hill. "How do you know?" 

Antigua was about to explain the visor's optical system to him when a shrill whistle sounded off to their right. As she turned to look for the source of the sound a fist-sized rock sailed out of the nearby scrub. It hit her squarely on the front of her visor helmet with enough force to knock her from the saddle. The blow did not hurt her, but she landed in an awkward sprawl on the ground.  

"Stand down, Ranger!" Sweden bellowed at the well-camouflaged man who was crouched in the scrub, preparing to fire another rock. 

The man started at the order. 

"Who goes there?" he bellowed, hefting another rock. 

Sweden raised the visor of his helmet to show his face. 

"Well I'll be buggered," the ranger said in surprise, "if it isn't the wee Lord himself risen from the dead. I can't tell you how glad I am to see your face, Sire."  

He squinted at the iron horse that towered in front of him, "What manner of beast is that?" 

Antigua picked herself up from the ground. She was deeply concerned that her sensors were malfunctioning. There had been no indication that a lifeform was in such proximity to them. She ran a quick diagnostic scan on her suit's systems, but everything came up green. There was nothing wrong with her suit. It just appeared that this individual had no electromagnetic signature.  

"That's impossible," she thought. 

Sweden turned to Antigua. 

"Need a hand?" he said, grinning as he offered to help her back into the saddle. 

She ignored his offer and mounted Argentum in silence. 

Sweden shrugged and turned back to the ranger who was cautiously approaching them.  

"It's a long story, old man and I'm still not entirely sure of it myself. What are you doing out here on your own, Yemen?" Sweden said, relieved to see the old ranger.  

"... and where's my father?" 

A shadow passed across the ranger's face. He glanced towards the hill that Sweden and Antigua had been heading for. 

"I'm sorry, Sweden, the Lady Slovenia has him. The evil bitch took him captive and left the other rangers for the vultures. I'd be dead too if your father hadn't sent me after you."  

"Slovenia? Are you sure?" Sweden asked doubtfully, "What was she doing all the way out here?" 

"Oh, it was her alright," the ranger sighed, "seen her with my own eyes, I did. I still have the hard-on to prove it." 

He glanced shiftily from side to side before continuing. 

"I was ambushed by a caver before I could catch up with you. Lucky for me the brute was more interested in my horse or I'd probably be hanging up in one of their larders right now feeling sorry for myself. Anyway, when I got away from the caver I came back to our campsite, and there she was, that 'she-devil,' doing something unspeakable to Zambia. She was with a company of knights so I stayed out of sight." 

Sweden was distraught.

"She killed my father?" 

"Nay, worse than that my boy," Yemen answered. "She done hogtied the poor wretch and dragged him off behind her horse. Where ever she's taking him, he's going to be mighty raw when he gets there." 

Antigua listened to their interaction intently, this was interesting. It appeared that her companion was a lord and was afforded a high degree of respect.  

Interesting. 

Sweden tapped her on the shoulder. 

"We'd better go," he said, "my father's army is going to need a leader." 

As second in line to the Poan kingdom he never really expected to have to take command, but the opportunity now presented itself and Sweden suddenly found he was quite eager to assume the role. 

Yemen was acutely aware of his vulnerability out in the hearthland. Without a horse or backup, he was nothing more than a snack waiting to be eaten. There was no room on Argentum for another rider so he played for time, "If it please my liege, would it not be wise for us to check for survivors? I haven't had the heart to go look, but there's a chance someone needs our help." 

Sweden was about to dismiss the idea when a falcon's piercing shriek split the air. He turned in surprise, the word 'no' half-formed on his lips, as the bird flapped into their midst. It circled around them a couple of times, screeching alarmingly at them. 

"Why, that's Zambia's bird!" Yemen exclaimed. 

"Here girl, tsk tsk tsk... " he said, holding out his arm and clucking in an attempt to entice the animal into landing there. 

The falcon swooped onto his outstretched arm, its talons sinking deep into the exposed flesh between his gauntlet and the sleeve of his leather shirt. Yemen swore furiously as he gently maneuvered the bird onto his gauntlet. The animal was visibly shaking and had obviously been frightened by something.  

"Hello Oculus," Yemen said, gingerly stroking the back of her neck to calm her down. He was very familiar with the falcon because he happened to be the chief falconer for the Poan Citadel. All the birds used by the ranger corps were raised and trained by his hand. 

Sweden smiled, "She looks happy to see you, old man." 

"Yes, that she does." 

Antigua studied the bird carefully. She recognized it as a bird of prey but again was unable to identify the specific species in her database. She captured some footage through her visor, tagged it for review, and filed it away.  

Argentum stamped his front hoof impatiently, "What are we doing here, Mistress? We're very exposed out here and I don't trust either of these men." 

"Gentlemen, I think it is time we moved on." 

Yemen stared at Antigua for a moment. 

"Sweden, who is this impudent wench that speaks before she is spoken to?" 

There was a moment of pregnant silence punctuated by a snort from Argentum. Antigua raised her helmet visor and slowly climbed out of the saddle. She slid gracefully down Argentum's flank, landing in a crouch in front of the old ranger. Yemen watched this with a bemused look on his face, was she about to square up for a fight? 

He glanced back up at Sweden, ready to crack a sly dig at the young prince's expense, but something in the lord's eyes made him suddenly nervous. Oculus was apparently aware of the danger too and chose that moment to take flight, screeching her disapproval. 

Antigua stood up slowly. She was at least a foot and a half taller than the ranger so this gave him a horrible sense of impending doom. He had never seen a woman like this before and he was suddenly very frightened. He reached for his sword, but before he could even wrap his fingers around the handle, Antigua had closed the gap between them, grabbed him by the scruff of his surcoat, and lifted him up into the air.  

"I do not require anyone's permission to speak, Master Yemen," she whispered. 

Yemen stammered, flapping his arms and legs feebly into empty space, "Who the... who..." 

He looked down and became even more alarmed when he realized she could lift and hold him over her head with just one hand. 

"My lord, Sweden!" he exclaimed, ” I beg of you, call her off." 

"You're not hearing me," Antigua said, shaking the ranger to emphasize each word. 

Antigua was allowing her anger to cloud her judgment. She was distracted and because she had raised her visor her situational awareness was diminished. With it on she would have noticed the thick collection of flashing dots on her mini-map that had formed a large circle around their position. 

Argentum was less distracted. The warhorse switched on his sonic repellent.  

"Mistress, we have company." 

Antigua dropped the panic-stricken ranger. He collapsed to the ground, clutching his ears and mewling pathetically. Unlike Sweden and Antigua, he was not protected from the sonic weapon. 

Antigua climbed back into the saddle and turned to Sweden, "Time to go. Your friend will have to fend for himself." 

Argentum launched forward at full gallop. Sweden grabbed onto her waist just in time to prevent himself from falling. 

"What is going on? We can't just leave him here!" 

He was not equipped with the sensor equipment that Argentum and Antigua benefited from and was unaware of the danger. 

"Fuck!" Antigua swore under her breath, but she pulled sharply on Argentum's reins bringing the horse to a skidding halt.  

She steered Argentum around and spurred him back to the still prone ranger. Yet again she dismounted and in one swift motion scooped the ranger up off the ground and flung him across Argentums rump. The warhorse was now quite awkwardly loaded. 

"There, he's your responsibility. If he falls off while we're riding he stays where he falls." 

Yemen was still blocking his ears and moaning in pain. Antigua leaped back into her saddle and kicked Argentum's flanks firmly, steering him back the way they had come. Sweden had the presence of mind to grab her suit belt with one hand and loop his free arm through Yemen's bandolier. The position was far from comfortable and he gritted his teeth as his muscles screamed in protest. 

"What are we running from?" he shouted. 

Antigua laughed and flicked off the sonic repellent. Suddenly the air was filled with the howls and roars of the host of monstrous predators that had been drawn to them. With the repellent no longer holding them at bay they rushed forward tightening the circle around them. Sweden turned to look as the first wave of them hurtled into view. 

"Shit!" he roared, "Get us out of here!" 

"My pleasure," Antigua replied as she flicked the repellent back on. 

Sweden watched in amazement as the horde of animals pulled up, halting their forward momentum almost as though they had run into a physical wall. Sweden could no longer hear them, but they were clawing and spitting at the air as they fell back, scrambling over each other in a mad dash to escape the terrible sound that was splitting their ears. The ring of animals parted in front of Argentum as he hurtled through them. The swarm of animals quickly lost interest in this unusual prey and they began to turn on each other. 

A few moments later and the threat was far behind them. Antigua flicked off the repellent again and turned to Sweden. 

"Show me the way to your army, M'lord," she chuckled. 

Sweden could not help but feel elated. Adrenalin and excitement lifted his spirits. He was starting to see this strange interloper in a whole new light. He liked what he saw.

Chapter 39

Art by Daniel Sheldon https://www.facebook.com/speednperspective & https://twitter.com/DanielSheld0n

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Gryphonboy
Gryphonboy

Small-time nerd. Publishing my book online for free! Check back every Sunday for the latest chapter. If you have any suggestions, corrections, criticisms, or just want to say hi please feel free to make them in the comments.


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